Feeling on top of the world

After 9 days of trekking (and what feels like a further 9 days of travelling, for once you get into the airport system, time behaves differently), I am back in the UK. And the best bit is, I got to the top of Kilimanjaro! After 6 hours of endless, relentless trudging uphill in pitch darkness, lit only by a head torch, feet slipping in the scree and brain demanding another rest stop, I reached Gillman’s point at 5.40am. Around 30 minutes later we got to Stella Point. At 7.15am local time (4.15am GMT) I reached Uhuru Peak, at 5895m above sea level.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of getting there. It was the culmination of months of preparation, training, support and encouragement from friends and colleagues. It was the culmination of 7 days of trekking through the Kilimanjaro National Park. It was the culmination of 7 days of teamwork from my fellow trekkers (Eirlys, Katherine, Michael, Raymond and Ian) and of our fantastic African Walking Company crew (our guides Passian, King James and Khalid, Mexan, our ‘stomach engineer’ and all our porters).

The summit climb was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I thought I knew what to expect after climbing Kala Patthar but I didn’t. We found out afterwards that someone had died of altitude sickness at Gillman’s Point the day before we got to the top. I’m glad we didn’t know that in advance.

I’m now suffering from some sort of culture shock. On Friday I was on top of Kilimanjaro. On Monday afternoon I was in my living room, sorting out the washing. That’s a huge change to deal with and I’m struggling. So for the time being, there is no detailed account of the trek but I have posted some photos below.

Thanks you to everyone who supported me in whatever way. It made a difference.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Lightning

On Sunday, I wrote about a few minutes coming down off Fan Fawr when I thought there might be a thunder storm. I can think of nothing else that frightens me as much as being caught out on the hills in a thunder storm.

Fast forward to today. I finished work at 11, picked Rufus up shortly afterwards and at just after midday, we set off from the car to climb up to Llyn y Fan Fawr. The mountains looked lovely in the sun, with a sprinkling of snow on them. It was soggy underfoot but this route usually is, and my boots are waterproof.

Not long after we started, a light sleety snow started to fall, and it turned into hails stones. But it was a light shower. All morning I’d watched short, sharp showers pass over. Rarely did they last more than 10 minutes. The clouds ahead were nothing more than another shower. As we started to climb, the hail got heavier and the wind picked up. I knelt down and for a few minutes, sheltered Rufus from the worst of the hail. There was tail wagging and I got a lot of kisses – I think Rufus likes my beard, which I’ve left grow a bit recently.

The hail got a lot lighter and we set off again. A little way up the hill, the wind picked up and once again the hail started. And then there was an ominous rumbling. I knew straight away what it was, and I was frightened. Thunder coming from the clouds directly ahead.

I immediately turned around. There was no thought of sheltering. I made sure I could see Rufus and we started back down the path.  It had taken us about 30 minutes to get here. The thought of walking back with the risk of lightning for 30 minutes was rather unpleasant. So I began to jog. I was conscious of the risk to my knee but that was secondary. I kept talking to Rufus as he’s not happy with thunder and there were several claps going off. He seemed okay, treating the jogging as a game and criss-crossing in front of me. But he stayed close, which is not his preferred way when he’s out. It was clear he was aware something was up.

I took the direct route back towards the car. That meant missing out the detour to cross the river and I found myself on the wrong side of it. But the ground underfoot was a little flatter so we made good progress. And then I saw the first lightning bolt. It was over to the right, and I saw it out of the corner of my eye. Almost immediately there was a loud clap of thunder. I checked on Rufus, who was hesitating a bit, and I kept talking to him in what I felt was a normal tone of voice, although I was beginning to feel quite scared.

We got to the point where we had to cross the river. Without any hesitation, I waded through the shallows, the water slopping over my boots. Rufus was over quickly and we were about a minute from the car. Then I saw the second lightning bolt, directly overhead. Once again, fortunately, it didn’t touch the ground.The thunder broke at the same time as the lightning.  A little bit of my mind was wondering if a bolt struck the ground, how far away it would have to be so that we wouldn’t be affected. All around me was bog, waterlogged grass and river. I decided to concentrate on getting to the car.

The last few hundred metres was covered in a dash. Rufus was still by my side and he leapt into the car as I opened the door for him. I made sure he was in and shut the door, then climbed in to the passenger seat and closed that door.

Another flash and thunderclap happened at the same time, but I felt so much safer in the car. Rufus was standing, staring at me and I was trying to get my breath back. I gave him a lot of fussing but he was clearly wound up with the excitement of it all. A treat helped. The wind buffeted the car and blew snow up against the windows. In the time it had taken us to get back, I hadn’t noticed the hail turn to snow.

It took me five minutes to stop panting (I’m no runner) and by the time I’d calmed down, Rufus was lying on the back seat, watching me. Several more claps of thunder sounded while we were there but I saw no more lightning. Checking the GPS tracker, I saw that the 30 minute journey up had taken just over 16 minutes to cover on the way down.

The road was white with snow or hail, and I took it slowly at first as I drove down and away from the mountains,. The wind blew snow directly into the windscreen and the visibility wasn’t the best. After a few minutes of careful driving, we reached the main road. And a few minutes after that, the sun was shining and there was blue sky! As had recovered, and both of us had been robbed of a decent walk, I decided to stop on the way back so that we could walk a bit further. Careful to check the clouds,  we walked along side the River Tawe near Ystalafera. Compared to our ordeal, it was pleasant walking.

I’ve been in a white out on Ben Nevis, I’ve taken the wrong path on Blencathra and ended up clinging to the side of a vertical drop several hundred feet high, and I’ve walked along Crib Goch in a gusty breeze. But today was the most scared I’ve ever been on the hills.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spooky

It’s not often I’m lost for words but trying to describe the feeling I had when sitting in the pitch dark on the first floor of Margam Castle this evening is one of those times.

We went on a ghost night last night. Traditional Welsh Cawl (a rich lamb stew) at the haunted Prince of Wales pub in Kenfig, followed by a tour of Margam Castle. We’ve been on several ghost tours and walks and they’ve each been great in their own way. Bath was atmospheric, York was well delivered and Dunster was an all round good night.

But last night was different again. It felt more personal when we were in the pub, where the landlord told us about the things that had happened to him during his 9 years running the pub. They were stories of mischief and general good humour. The spirits in the Prince of Wales were friendly and generally non-threatening.

We moved on to Margam Castle. We’ve been there many times during the day but immediately we got out of the car, the place had a completely different feel. It wasn’t completely dark and there the house stood out against the cloudless sky. The stars were clear and bright and we couldn’t have asked for better conditions.

After some history of the house and the family that lived there, we proceeded inside. With all the lights out, the atmosphere was eerie and every sound was magnified with the echo. Our host told stories about the malevolent spirits that occasionally showed themselves and we watched and waited, unsure of what we were going to see (or not see). Despite the lack of sights or sounds, the place was full of atmosphere and I would not have been surprised to either see or hear something myself, or find one of the other people claiming to have seen or heard something. But the spirits were shy tonight.

We went upstairs and sat in the pitch black silence. Now, as the guide spoke, I could make out a faint murmur beneath his voice. But as I realised it was the echo coming back, he mentioned this as a characteristic of the house and it’s central staircase. He told us about the times he’s been setting up and has felt something, and one of his theories is that the presence upstairs is an elemental spirits, that is, more ancient than human beings.

We heard nothing upstairs either, but as the night was drawing to an end, I became aware of a feeling inside me that I cannot describe. If you have ever walked in on the aftermath of an argument, when everyone is quiet and there is a feeling of awkwardness, you can only describe accurately that feeling to people who have experienced it themselves. How do you describe it to someone who has never felt it? That’s why I find it hard to describe how I felt on the upper landing of Margam Castle. I can only say that I was uncomfortable, uneasy and didn’t want to stay there. But I can’t say why.

It was a tremendous evening. We’ve been to Margam many times and it’s always a rewarding visit. But the ghost tour was by far the best visit I’ve had.

Techno-gaaaaaaargh!

All gone.

Every single mp3 file on my external hard drive has been scrambled into gigabits. 44Gb of white noise, with maybe a hint of pink thrown in. And who is to blame? Virus? One of the major computer manufacturers? Geothermal energy production?

No, it was me. My fault. I clicked on an ‘Ok’ button when I should have paused and taken a moment to reflect. My punishment? Well, this blog post for one – I expose my self to all of my follower as a fool who should have read the warning. But like a typical Activist/Aries/Bloke I just went ahead and clicked. The other punishment? Re-ripping all my CDs.

Fortunately, I’m relatively old fashioned in that I like to have a CD rather than a collection of ‘0’s and ‘1’s. So at least I know that 90% of my music collection is intact. But there are soooo many CDs!

It’s not the first time I’ve lost data. I am missing two years worth of digital image files as a result of corrupt DVDs (my back up media of choice in the 90’s). My photos are now backed up three times, on separate hard drives and the PC.

And it makes me think that all this stuff about cloud computing is only as good as your internet link and the reliability of the storage technology.

Funnily enough, I still have photographic prints on silver halide paper from 1983.

 

 

In 213 days time…

…I’ll be flying from London on my way to climb Kilimanjaro.

Over a year ago, I wrote about tackling Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro. For various reasons, some mentioned in previous posts, I was unable to go ahead. So sitting back and thinking about things this week, I’ve decided to do it. Mount Kenya is out – too much risk and there was no interest in the trip proposed in 2011. So this time it’s just Kilimanjaro.

A lot of the people I trekked with before had done it. They all said it was fantastic. Some hadn’t got to the top. I used to think it was too much of a trophy challenge but I’ve come to change my mind.

It will also be a useful test to see how I fare at close to 6000m. One of my dreams is to climb a trekking peak in the Himalayas – Island Peak or Mera. At over 6km high, they are a serious challenge and I need to get that high altitude experience.

Keep an eye out for details of how you can sponsor me – I’ll be collecting for charity again.

So Kilimanjaro, here I come.

What could have been 2 – what was.

As a brilliant birthday present last year, my friend bought me a flight in an old bi-plane.  I’d had several attempts at booking the flight, all of which had been postponed by the weather. I re-booked for Wednesday and at the last minute changed the date to today. I rang up the company this morning just before I left and was told that the sky had turned a funny shade of blue and it was ideal flying weather. I set off, nervous and excited and eager to get to the airport, in Gloucester. Staverton was an old RAF station that  was home to training flights and played a part in developing air-to-air refueling at the end of WW2. I’d studied Google maps and the place looked like a maze but I drove slowly between the hangars and finally spotted Tiger Airways on the left.

The hangar was full of aerobatic monoplanes and two Stampe SV4Cs with their engines disassembled. Tiger, the half greyhound, welcomed me in to the office where Chris set up the Pre-flight Briefing DVD. Apparently, if I touched anything with yellow tape on it, the plane was likely to plummet to the ground and if I didn’t do the harness up properly, I was likely to plummet to the ground – no parachutes here. If I talked while the air traffic control were talking, I could make us miss something important and if didn’t plummet to the ground, people would shout at me.  Then it was on with a flying jacket and white silk scarf and out to the waiting aircraft – a Stampe SV4C G-AZGE with a complete engine. After filling the tank, I climbed into the front cockpit, nervous and excited. Tizi, the chief instructor pilot, fitted the leather flying helmet and I did a radio check. Chris took photos.

Then, just like the movies, there was a lot of  ‘fuel pumps on, brakes on, carbs primed, contact,’ stuff and on the second attempt and with the aid of a hammer, the engine started. They even said ‘chocs away’ just before we started off. After some contact with air traffic control, we taxied out to the runway and waited for a Cessna to land. It bounced quite high and Tizi laughed as only an experienced pilot is allowed to. Then, with the wind in my face, we bumped down the runway. In a surprisingly short time, we were airborne and climbing away from the airport. The wind buffeted the plane, making it shake and shimmy, but there was no stomach churning turbulence. I actually felt part of the plane rather than sitting in it. We always returned to the same heading and level flight. Tizi tested me out on the controls and then offered me the chance to experience some simple aerobatics. We looped, then we did a loop with a roll. The thought of both made me doubt I wanted to do them, but the reality was that they were exhilarating, fun and not nearly as bad as I was expecting.

Then I had a chance to fly the plane. The control stick was remarkably sensitive and required the lightest of touches from finger and thumb to make the plane bank, climb and descend. It was very simple to maneouver the plane and the bit of the briefing that said ‘it’s easier to fly this plane than to drive a car’ felt true. With Tizi’s guidance, we climbed up over the flooded Severn, over Tewkesbury and then circled gently around to fly over the airfield at around 2000 feet. We watched other aircraft landing and taking off from above. Then we circled again to join the landing circuit. I was just about getting the hang of the tiny movements required to guide the plane as we dropped in behind a Cessna that was ahead of us in the queue to land. Tizi only took over again as we descended and slowed on final approach. The landing was smooth and we taxied back to the hangar.

Sitting in the cockpit waiting to fly, I thought about WW1 pilots and how flimsy their planes were to take into combat. I was feeling nervous at that point and it must have been similar for them. As we taxied, I felt excitement too, but it wasn’t like the flights to and from Lukla. I felt more in control as I could see more and feel the plane – as I said before, it felt as if I was part of it. In the air, it was nothing like flying in a passenger plane. I could see clearly out but the height wasn’t an issue. I guess because I was looking sideways rather than down. Watching the ground above me was odd but not frightening. Diving towards the ground coming out of the loop and roll was disconcerting but not scary.

When I got home, I looked up the history of the plane on the Internet. It was built in 1947 in Belgium and was probably a trainer. But the most fascinating this for me was that in 1976, it was modified to look like a WW1 SE5a fighter and used in the film ‘Aces High’. Look at this link to see the plane itself – scroll down until you see the plane on the ground with the tail number E-940. I sat in the front of that!

What a great experience!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Oh, snow!

More snow today. I left for work at about 7am and finally got in to my desk at 8.20. Although the roads were bad, the standard of driving of some of the people in front and behind me was worse and was the actual cause of all the delays. I watched an articulated lorry, stuck on a hill, slide backwards then get some grip and pull forwards, only to slide back again. In doing so, it blocked the road completely. I watched people abandon cars in the middle of the road. I saw a rubbish lorry slide down a hill out of control and nearly hit a car left at the side of the road ahead of it. The guy behind me was so close I couldn’t see his headlights – I suspect he planned on using me as an extra set of brakes if he needed to stop. Drivers too timid to attempt any manoeuvre slightly off the line of the tyre tracks on the road managed to block three lanes at a major junction.

I’m not impatient when it comes to things that affect safety. But I had my own reasons for urging a little more speed this morning. I was desperate to go for a wee. By the time I was crawling along the motorway and queueing up to leave it, I was also looking for convenient bushes. On the road leading to the office, I was looking for a convenient bottle in the car. Once parked, I negotiated the steps and slippery path gently knowing that one slight bump or slip would result in an embarrassing accident. The sigh of relief as I got to the urinal lasted for several minutes, and could be heard throughout the building.

At lunchtime I went out for a stroll, as it was clear and there was snow on the trees in the nearby graveyard. It was beautiful and poignant given the location, and tranquil too.

Leaving work this evening, I was braced for the horrors of long queues of slow moving vehicles but was surprised that my chosen route home was fairly clear.

About an hour after I got home, there was another 2″ of snow on the windscreen. And I get to do it all again tomorrow!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here we snow again

Sorry about the title.

I managed to get a last minute day off today (thanks boss). Rufus and I decided to make for Craig y Fan Ddu.I knew it would be white with frost and I knew it would probably be a challenge for the car and I to get to the car park. But what is life without challenges? Just before we set off, there was a beautiful pre-dawn glow in the sky and I took that to be a good omen, since the clear skies forecast hadn’t materialised properly.

We battled through the commuter traffic. Some how it didn’t seem so bad because we weren’t off to work and in no time we were flying up the A465 heading for Merthyr. Beyond the urban sprawl, the narrow lane leading up into the mountains was frosty, with large stretches covered in snow and ice. The car park was empty and the track leading to it covered in about 2 inches of snow. Great!

We set off on the steep path alongside the river, which tumbles and crashed down a series of waterfalls on my left. After 5 minutes, I realised I’d left Rufus’ snacks behind. Fearing that he’d eat parts of me as punishment, I went back down to get them. About half way up the path, we encountered the first of many sheep. As they wear camouflage at this time of year, they surprised both of us. Rufus was staring in disbelief at a sheep only a few yards away. Ever well behaved (!) he came back to me and we negotiated the ovines until we got to the steepest part of the climb. With my head down, I just got on with it and 10 minutes later, I was panting whilst looking out over a snow covered landscape to the south.

Rufus, of course, was unaffected by the climb and just wanted to get on with the rest of the walk.

We set off north along the ridge towards Graig Fan Las and Craig Cwarelli. The sun was out but not strong as there was a partial covering of thin cloud. A light wind served to chill the air but it wasn’t uncomfortable. For the first half of the route, there was a lot of ice on the path, making walking next to the sheer drop quite a challenge. Rufus’ four paw drive worked but even he was losing grip; probably because he was running everywhere. He was careful not to go near the edge, though.

Then we passed over a stream, an adventure in itself as most of the rocks in the path were covered in thick ice and the stream dropped over the edge of the ridge and down…down…down…

Beyond the stream, things changed. The path was covered in snow, which in places came up over me gaiters (I said gaiters, not garters. It didn’t reach as far as them). That’s knee height. Rufus learnt how to spot and avoid deep snow last time we were up here, so he was okay. I looked for the shortest route and found the going quite hard. We dropped down into the head of the Cerrig Edmwnt valley and the wind picked up. I had to stop to fix my gart… er gaiters and almost immediately I felt my fingers start to sting in the bitter wind. Neither of us waited long and we took off westwards. In the distance, Pen y Fan and Corn Du shone with white snow in the sunshine.

By now, the snow was taking it’s toll on Rufus. Snow balls between his toes where he has long hair and it’s uncomfortable for him to walk. I can usually tell and sure enough, he slowed and then started manicuring himself. I helped him clear the snowballs away and decided to turn around. We had to stop a few more times for snowball clearing, but he was okay. On the way back, I was facing the sun and it was lovely to walk in the sunshine even if there wasn’t a lot of heat coming from it. We met two walkers coming up, and I stopped to talk to them for a while. When I looked down, Rufus was lying flat on the path cleaning his paws again.

Before long we were at the drop to the car park. Despite being down hill, it was no less of a challenge as many of the stones and rocks underfoot had thin sheets of ice on them. But I managed to cope with that (Rufus just went for it and spent his time waiting for me by paddling in the river – which also cleared his paws of snow). At the car park, I put the backpack away, grabbed the camera and set off down into the woods. There’s a lovely set of waterfalls here and with the snow they were even more appealing. I threw stones for Rufus while snapping away at the river.

All too soon it was time to head home. Engaging super mega grip drive (ok, I selected the ice setting), we drove up the slippery track to the road. For a few miles, there was a lot of ice on the road where it had melted, flowed and refrozen as the sun dropped below the hills. Then the going got better and we were back on proper roads. Rufus was sleeping for most of the way back and flopped on the sofa when we got home.

See our route here. I wish I lived closer to the mountains.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It is resolved

Happy new year.

I’m not one for new year’s resolutions. If I make any, I tend to be just setting myself up for a fall. So here are some of the resolutions I shall not be making this year.

1. Give up chocolate. For good. Yeah, right. If there is no chocolate in the house, then it’s easy. But if there is, then it shall be eaten. I’ve eaten some today. And the emergency rations I take with me on walks is usually chocolate coated, so I can’t give it up or I might die, weakened by intense hunger, on some lonely mountain top.

2. Do more exercise. I’m a member of the works gym. I should go more often, not because it’s January 1st, but because I’m paying a monthly fee to use the facilities and I’m currently only using them once a week – which makes it an expensive gym. But more exercise will mean I can go for longer walks, up higher hills and mountains and be reasonably fit should I decide to undertake another trek.

3. Take more photos. Well, last year I don’t know how many photos I took, but I kept 12,548 of them, which probably means 16-18,000 taken. I’ve been sifting through them recently, and ones from previous years (66,997 in total) to identify the best. It started out as something to do when the rain was too heavy to venture out, but became a project in itself. I’m just finishing 2011 now and I’ll be starting on 2012 later this week. If there was any resolution here, it should be to increase the number of good photos I take – so far from the total, I’ve identified only around 600 I would put forward as portfolio candidates. A hit rate of less than 1%. Not good at all.

One thing I will be trying to do this year is uploading a photograph taken every day for the year. Risky, I know, because if I miss a day I may not continue (that’s how my mind works) but an interesting exercise that I’ve seen loads of times before. I used to take part in an occasional ‘1-a-day’ project but it would only last 30 days at a time. Lets see how long this one lasts. Check out my Flickr account for the photos.

One thing I won’t do is post a blog a day. That would be too much for me, and as it would rapidly degenerate into even worse drivel than it is now, it would be torture for you. But Flickr will publicise the photos on here.

4. Save money. I took a big hit last year with the car and the work on the house. So I have to try and make some of that back. On the other hand, I no longer have to hold back a chunk of cash in case the house starts to fall down. Free capital. I guess if there’s anything to aim for this year, it’s using the money wisely and getting a good return – whether it be in interest or value.

5. Improve. Actually, I don;t have a problem with something like this. By improve, I mean get better at the things that interest me. So that’s photography, music and hill walking. Practice makes perfect, they say. So that’s what I’ll do.

Whatever you decide, whether it’s a set of strict rules and guidelines, a loose ‘enjoy myself” or anything in between, I hope your new year brings you what you want.

Beware

If you mention the word ‘geothermal’, the carbon capture police create and publish a webpage that tracks your blog statistics. If you scroll down a bit, you’ll see that the page even decides whether you’re an activist or not and measures the ‘tone’ (mine is 0.45%). You will also see that it has linked me to two individuals, Leifur Ericsson and Hallgrimur Petersson. In turn, the site has created pages for both of them and links to the countries with which they are associated.

Leifur was the first European to reach North America, some 500 years before Columnbus. He immediately set about campaigning against carbon capture. Hallgrimur wrote anti-environmental poetry between 1614 and 1674 in Iceland.

With any luck, this post will have raised my ‘tone’ and made me into an activist.